The dying art of hitchhiking
Catching a ride with strangers is harder than it looks
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I stood outside Pakenham a hopeful man, trying to hitch a ride from Melbourne to Sydney. I watched all the sensible people drive past. After two hours I was so sunburnt I looked embarrassed to be there. After five hours they were still roaring past, and when a car did finally swerve off the road to pick me up – like talkback radio, it was filled with lunatics.
I was 20 when this all went down, but I’d had some experience hitchhiking already. One night in Adelaide I hitched a ride with a guy who was so high he couldn’t find the gearstick. He kept lunging into empty space with his hand. Eventually we had to pull over so he could find it by the light of his phone.
“Once I’ve got it,” he said, “I’ve got it for good. I’ll just keep hanging on.”
He rummaged around for a while. Then he hung his head. “Well, shit. I guess it’s an automatic.”
I’d hitchhiked around New Zealand and, with surprising success, on the backs of bicycles on the way to a football match in Amsterdam.
I seem also to recall soliciting a piggyback ride up Adelaide’s North Terrace one time, but my memories of the incident are vague. (I remember the man’s neck, though, which smelled of leather couches and hot chips.)
Hitchhiking is no longer the business of ordinary citizens. You don’t see highways dotted with people anymore, and truck drivers are generally too busy or too wary to change down through all those gears and stop.
That day outside Pakenham, there seemed to be some confusion about what I was even doing there. A few people driving past returned my thumbs up, which was nice but not super-helpful. Possibly they thought I’d been positioned there just to give general encouragement to motorists.
Hundreds and then thousands of cars drove past. I stood on one foot. I stood on the other foot. I spent 20 minutes trying to catch my reflection in passing cars to make sure my thumbing technique looked right. The cars drove on by.
It has been suggested that the huge rise in car ownership means motorists have come to view anyone without a car with deep suspicion. Who is this person, they think, and where is their automobile? On a highway otherwise filled with cars, a hitchhiker looks like a weird, naked crab and no one wants to touch him.
I have only one friend who still hitchhikes, and I’m not sure I would pick him up. He has a big orange beard and hobbit pants, for starters, but it’s mainly because he has an accordion and gives the distinct impression he’s not afraid to use it. As the number of hitchhikers shrinks, they become harder to identify with. You become less likely to take a gamble on someone like Jiffy.
I did some work for the local council recently, interviewing cyclists and pedestrians about how they were getting along with one another on a certain shared boulevard. Cyclists and pedestrians would come storming over.
“We need separate paths,” they’d say. “One for the bikes, one for the pedestrians. We need a fence between the two. Maybe a wall. Write that down. Does the council have money for a wall?”
It all sounded reasonable at first. But gradually, as the day wore on and the coffee wore off, they started to sound ridiculous. I mean, shit. You never see fish crashing into each other on the Great Barrier Reef, and here we are with brains the size of melons and we can’t work it out? Gimme a break.
Dodging bikes and babies is how the brain gets its exercise. When did we start relying on regulations instead of ourselves? We have forged these paths of convenience through the wilderness of our lives. We buy new cars and they smell like freedom, but then we’re stuck in them every day on the way to work. The problem-solving parts of our brains shut down. In Switzerland, where the trains are scheduled to arrive at ridiculous times like 12.47, and often do, commuters are famously bad at coping when things don’t go according to plan.
It’s nice, every now and then, to go off the path and walk in the woods.
Still, this particular car was a terrible idea. Trying to explain why I got in at all is mildly embarrassing, like trying to explain the dating decisions of your early 20s. The car almost hit me coming off the highway, for one thing. It belonged to a man named Steve from Cheltenham, and it broke from the line of traffic and hurtled towards me. There were four people inside. Two of them were waving, none of them was Steve.
The car skidded to a stop where I’d been standing. The boot sprang open and someone yelled, “Get in already!”
There wasn’t much time for questions (“Are you sure there’s room?”, “Is this really your car?”, etc.). But after five and a half hours of waiting, you’d climb on a donkey if it smiled at you right.
I had one foot and most of my body in when we took off.
There were two guys in the front, a girl passed out against the window behind the driver and a big guy hunkered down next to her in the backseat. I squeezed in next to him and tried to make room for my feet among the whisky bottles.
He stared down at me and said, “Stop moving around so much, city boy. You’ll disturb the nits.”
Hitchhiking’s not free, exactly. The price you pay, usually, is making conversation, which can sometimes be deeply wearying after a while and make you appreciate what a train ticket’s really worth. Usually you’re expected to show at least some interest in each driver’s children, hobby racehorse or particular brand of politics. This can be circumvented somewhat by falling asleep, but that is generally considered rude.
I leant forward. “Hi! My name’s Robert! Just thought I should, you know, introduce myself.”
The driver was looking at the big guy in the mirror and yelling, “Your head’s in the way! I can’t see a fuckin’ thing out the back window.”
And the big guy was saying, “Well, look out the front one then!” which was advice the driver didn’t seem to care for.
The girl woke up, said, “You must be Dave,” and threw up in the ashtray.
We were up over a hundred in no time. Everyone in the car had been drinking, as far as I could tell, except maybe the driver, who had such a vague grasp on the laws of physics that it hardly made a difference. We were all over the highway. I’m not sure what he was doing up there exactly, but steering was not one of those things.
Occasionally the big guy would lean forward and shout random names at the driver. After a time I realised he was shouting the names of the gentlemen on his whisky bottles, which made it slightly less confusing but no less disconcerting. Then he’d slump back in his seat and stare down at me the way a mountain might, if it was stormy and just not in the mood.
He wanted to listen to my discman, so I gave him the headphones and kept trying to play him ballads to calm him down.
Some argument started up between the girl and her boyfriend in the front seat. We were doing about 120 when he climbed out the window. Only his curled white fingers and his legs from the knees down were still in the car, and he was trying to yell in through the window. Most of what he was yelling was being whipped away by the wind, so no one could really understand what he was saying or why he wasn’t in the car anymore. We were all grabbing at him with both hands, trying to drag him back in. The car was driving itself, more or less, and it drove like a drunk. I could hear beeping horns and squealing tyres but had no idea where they were coming from. Neither did the driver.
“What the hell was that?” he kept saying.
We were coming up fast behind a caravan, lurching forwards and sideways trying to get around. There was a B-double to our right, blocking us in, so the driver swung left and tried overtaking on the gravel shoulder. We clattered past the caravan. Gravel pinged off the windows and someone yelled out “Watch the paint job!” and then we were back on the bitumen ahead of the caravan and the driver turned around and said, “So where you want us to take you?”
I looked down and saw my pants were wet from sweaty handprints. Only two of the handprints were mine.
“You know what? Here’s fine.”
That got all of them yelping.
“What the hell? We’re not good enough for you now?”
The driver, indignantly, threw his hands in the air.
“You don’t just turn down an offer of friendship like that!” he almost screamed. “Where are you going to?”
I didn’t know the name of the next town. Thinking about it, I didn’t know the names of any towns between Melbourne and Sydney. I looked out the window for a sign, from God, the local council, anybody.
Finding nothing, I said, “Just the next town. Whatever it is.”
“You said you were going to Sydney,” said the driver.
“I am. It’s just … I have to stop in every town along the way to eat a chicken parmigiana. For this thing I’m writing.”
The big guy was looking at me hard.
“I really love chicken parmigiana,” I said.
They thought about it for a while, or seemed to, then the driver said, “Well, fuck you, city boy. We’re taking you to Sydney.”
The big guy said, “I hate chicken parmigiana.” Which is about when the trouble started.
I have good hitchhiking stories, but good hitchhiking stories, like happy families, are all alike, and generally not much fun to listen to. This is why you won’t see a Wolf Creek 3 where a German couple get a ride to the beach with a friendly local and have a lovely time.
I saw Wolf Creek 2 a few weeks ago. Sure, they succeeded in making hitchhiking look scary, but when we walked out I wasn’t just afraid of strangers. I was afraid of wolves and creeks and cinemas and even the girl I went there with.
It’s interesting, though, how people refer to the Wolf Creek movies like they’re a beginner’s guide to common sense. (“I was thinking of hitching home.” “OMG, have you not seen Wolf Creek?” Etc.)
This is a sign, perhaps, of how few people have meaningful contact with the whole business of hitchhiking. Maybe hitchhikers have already fallen below some critical mass. If picking up hitchhikers is abandoned by the general public and left to a few cheerful and willing psychopaths, hitchhiking will have a hard time recovering as a viable means of getting around.
Maybe this isn’t a problem, as long as it doesn’t speak to some general decline in trust and fellowship. Maybe those of us who have had good times hitchhiking are just being sentimental.
In the car, there was some argument about whether we should stop for more booze. At the last possible moment, the driver wrenched the wheel and we went barrelling into the turn-off at 80 kilometres an hour. Another car was waiting to turn onto the highway. We came at them hard and fast. We hit the traffic island and launched into the air, straight at their flank, like a tiger leaping for the belly of a buffalo.
I braced myself against the seat in front of me. I’d been trapped in that car like it was a long-term relationship. Now, with everything rushing at us through the window, I thought, Here might be a way out of this thing.
Then we hit.
A pole between the two cars took most of the blow. I couldn’t see the people in the other car but that pole, I suppose, was the difference between ruining their day and ruining their lives.
The cars smashed into each other. The pole buckled. Our car spun around and started rolling down the side road, away from the highway.
There was a whoosh and then huge balls of flame erupted from the engine, which I thought only happened in the movies. I tried yelling sensible things from the back seat but they came out sounding small and ridiculous.
I got my door open, trying to time a jump. All this I’d learnt from the movies. The girl was trying to get her door open too. She was scrabbling around for the handle and saying things that I couldn’t understand. The car was on fire and no one really knew how to behave.
But the driver was a new man. He took control of the car for the first time in the whole goddamn trip. He hit the accelerator and we fishtailed away from the accident scene down the side road. The flames went out, somehow. The front of the car was black and smouldering. Some way from the highway now, we turned off the side road onto a dirt track.
The car stopped dead. Eucalypts lined the side of the track, and the afternoon sun came slanting in through their branches. We all got out and the others swarmed angrily around the car. I snuck around to the boot and tried to get my rucksack out. The boot had been buckled by the impact and would only open halfway so I had to tug away at the rucksack. When it burst free, I turned around and bumped straight into the big guy.
Something had gone wrong with his eyes. It was like seeing an empty cage at the zoo with the cage door still swinging on its hinges.
“Baby, I’m gonna slice you up,” he said.
He started pushing me towards the shrubs on the other side of the road.
“I’m gonna slice you up and throw bits of you into the blackberry bushes.”
My bag was heavy on my back. I thought about running, but also thought it would simplify things in a dangerous way.
I stood there with my hands in the air. “Hey.”
Our brains are funny things. On that dirt road in rural Victoria I had no good plans for escape, but I had 15 years of education, and I kept thinking, those are raspberry bushes, aren’t they?
The big guy prodded me in the chest.
“Money,” he said.
I tried to sound cheerful, like it was my idea.
“I could give you some petrol money!”
I fumbled for my wallet and gave him $60, which was all I had. My hands were shaking. His were not.
“The cards too.”
I was stubborn about the cards and didn’t want to hand them over.
He was insulted, I think, that I didn’t think he was white collar enough to pull off a crime with a bank card. But there were so many things flapping loose in his brain that it could have been anything. He roared and went for the boot of the car. He was shouting about being just as white collar as anyone else and other disturbing things like, “Where’s my fucking machete?”
He had the boot open and was really flinging stuff around in there. I was backing away, still with everything in my rucksack weighing me down.
“Where is it?” he was yelling.
In retrospect, I would guess that his machete wasn’t in there (if he had one at all) because everything in the boot belonged to Steve from Cheltenham. I didn’t know any of that, of course, and I’m not sure it would have helped – the big guy would have been dangerous with a finger puppet. I kept backing away with my hands up, expecting him to turn around at any moment with a curved blade glinting in the afternoon sun of the end of days.
There was no machete. He found something, though, and spun around to face me.
The last thing I noticed seemed really profound. Everything seems profound about crime if it happens to you. I stood there with all of my damn possessions, with the shadow of clouds on the lonely road. From the corner of my eye I noticed two small dark shapes hanging in the bushes, and thought, Well, fuck me, they are blackberries. I’m about to be murdered by a botanist.
Then he came at me with the tyre iron.
The other three saw him coming and ran to stop him. The two smaller guys were jumping all over him, trying to pull him down by the arms, leaping up to whack him on the back of the head. The big guy kept coming. The girl was bent over and screaming like a Hollywood movie, “Run, you idiot, run!” and as the big guy wound up for a swing, I ran.
I made it to the side road with my bag thudding into my back. I kept looking over my shoulder, thinking I’d see them somehow round the corner in the car.
I half ran, half stumbled up the side road and made it back to the highway. I explained to the officer arriving at the accident who I was, more or less.
She was a cheerful country policewoman; she and everyone else stood around the crash like it was a cake sale. The first thing she said was “You know hitchhiking’s illegal, right?”
I sat down, exhausted, on the kerb.
I told her I would rather live in a world punctuated by terror than a world mired in indifference. Sure, it was a bit shitty this time, I said, but that certainly wasn’t a compelling reason to catch the bus.
She patted me on the shoulder.
Later, in the Drouin police station, she was drinking tea and full of beans.
“So you started this morning at what time?”
“About nine o’clock.”
She looked at a map on the wall.
“Well, you managed … 23 kilometres before we picked you up. Have you considered jogging?” She winked at me over her tea cup. “Could be quicker.”
Then she said, “Now, I’ve been on the phone to your mother —”
I said, “You frigging what?!”
“Your mum, Claudia. She sounded nice. Not a big fan of this hitchhiking caper, though.”
I hitched again the next morning with a shaky thumb. I felt I had to, because it would have been a sour note to end things on, and also because the big guy had my bus money.
My carjacker friends were in the police lock-up by then. All four of them had been caught trying to hide in the same tree.
I’ll say this about them, though: they got me to Drouin.
And from Drouin things got easier. I got five rides and made it all the way to Nowra. But that day outside Pakenham, they were the only ones who stopped. Not one of those decent people driving their own cars even slowed down.